One set of today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary includes Psalm 124. Psalm 124 is one of my favorite psalms from a rhetorical perspective. I adore the repetition of the phrase “If it had not been for the Lord who was on our side.” The phrase is used twice in the first two verses of the psalm. They are only separated by the phrase “Let Israel now say” in an attempt to compel the people of God to join in the chorus.
The psalm reminds me of countless worship services, concerts, and festivals where I have heard a singer invite the audience or congregation to join in the music. While this is not a call and response situation, the power of the phrasing brings to mind the same compulsion to join in the song of the faithful. Robert Altar notes that he shares this impression in his translation and commentary “The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). Altar writes: (443)
“The second of these two versets is a formal exhortation, probably on the part of a choral leader, to the community of worshippers to chant the words of the liturgical text that begins in the first verset and continues in verse 2 through to the end of the psalm… The Hebrew, with its abundant use of incremental repetition, has a strong rhythmic character that would have lent itself to singing or chanting”
I am glad Altar agrees with my reflections and my tendencies with this psalm. One reason that I am glad is that I always appreciate being verified in my assumptions by a respected scholar like Robert Altar. The second reason that I am glad is that psalms like this psalm always strike me as invitations.
What if this psalm is an invitation to look at our own perspectives and experiences with a similar lens? The Psalmist claims the help of the Lord in the midst of challenges within this psalm. The Psalmist looks at the circumstances of challenge in life and notes God’s presence has made a difference in the life circumstances of the congregation. This invitation is especially powerful when we consider that the community as a whole is invited to join in the proclamation.
If I were a Hebrew man who was joining in this psalm, what might I think about as I talk about the powerful and salvific presence of God? Surely, I would consider the events of the Pentateuch and the salvation of the Jewish people, but I might also consider the times when I was sick and I felt God draw me out of the darkness. Surely, I would consider the events in the lives of the prophets, but I might also remember the times I stood by listening to my wife screaming as a child was brought safely into the world. There might be many thoughts on my mind as I joined in the psalm if I were a Hebrew man in the great congregation of the faithful.
So, what do I think of when I consider this psalm today? If it were not for the Lord, would my kids be healthy and safe? Surely, I am blessed by the world where my children live, but let us be clear. My children bear my genes and often my idiosyncrasies. I am surprised enough to have survived my own silliness and to have lived into the life I now lead. I am even more surprised it appears to be happening again! If it were not for the Lord, would I be here today? If it were not for the Lord, would my kids be safe and happy? I believe God has had a role in the lives of my family. If it were not for the Lord, my own silliness might swallow us up. Thanks be to God!
Where do you feel blessed by the Lord? What places in your life might have turned out differently if it were not for the Lord?